Podcast #39: A beef boom, and who can touch whom

November 25th, 2015

A beef boom, the question of who can touch whom, and human-milk-smell perfume, for the benefit of babies — all of these turn up in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

LISTEN TO IT! …or click on the “Venetian blinds” icon — at the lower right corner here — to select whichever week’s episode you want to hear:

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This week, Marc Abrahams tells about:

The mysterious John Schedler or the shadowy Bruce Petschek perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, on the CBS Play.it web site, and on iTunes and Spotify).

Patent application of the day: six God toilet water itching

November 24th, 2015

Today’s Patent Application of the Day is:

Packaging labels (six God toilet water itching)“, Chinese patent application CN301200531 S, filed August 7, 2009.

BONUS: The runner-up: “God Forms’ Genres“, US patent application US20110240755 A1, filed May 16, 2011.

BONUS: A successful patent: “God First Flag“, US patent USD659588 S1, filed December 5, 2008. The patent document provides this image:


UPDATE: Language Log looked into the name “six God Toilet water itching”, and found some translation anomalies.

Ig Nobel Prize winner ponders and muses on how to win one

November 23rd, 2015

Len Fisher, who won an Ig Nobel physics prize in 1999, for calculating the optimal way to dunk a biscuit, wrote an essay about what wins people an Ig. That essay begins more or less:

…I suggested that the use of blue light to stimulate erections was a sure-fire candidate for an Ig Nobel Prize. But what is an Ig Nobel Prize? How does one go about winning one? And should one want to win one?

When they were initiated in 1991 as a parody of the real Nobel Prizes, the answer to the last question was “certainly not!” When Marc Abrahams from Harvard University created the prizes, part of his intention was to vilify pseudoscience and unscientific thinking, and the motto was “for research that cannot or should not be reproduced.”

But this was not the only intention, although many people interpreted it in that way. According to Marc: “That original phrase was the best short summary we managed to come up with at the beginning, but we were not entirely happy with it — because some people interpreted it ONLY [in that] the way … . Whenever I would TALK with someone, or had a more extensive email (or whatever) exchange, I’d explain that the “Cannot be reproduced” part included “cannot be the FIRST to LEGITIMATELY claim FIRSTNESS,” and thus the prizes could honor pretty much anything, good or bad.

But it took about seven frustrating years or so to come up with a reliably better phrase.


BONUS: Theo Gray, who was awarded the 2002 Ig Nobel chemistry prize, for inventing the four-legged periodic table table, later developed a set of periodic table flash cards. Those cards have drawn some attention.

Driving trucks at birds – what happens?

November 23rd, 2015

Q. What happens if you drive a partially camouflaged Ford F-250 truck (travelling at 60 km/h [≈ 37 mph]) towards a group of feeding turkey vultures?
A. They get out of the way [pdq].

journal.pone.0087944.s002This was one of the findings of an experimental study by Travis L. DeVault, Bradley F. Blackwell, Thomas W. Seamans, Steven L. Lima, and Esteban Fernández-Juricic, performed at NASA’s Plum Brook Station, Lake Erie, Ohio, US, in 2011. The team also drove the truck at 90 km/h [≈ 56 mph] and the vultures still got out of the way – but only just.

Please note that no vultures were actually hit during any of the experiments.  See: Effects of Vehicle Speed on Flight Initiation by Turkey Vultures: Implications for Bird-Vehicle Collisions, PLoS ONE 9(2): e87944

The following year, another, perhaps less ornithologically perilous experimental approach was taken by the same team. This time using male brown-headed cowbirds and with vehicles travelling up to a punishing 180 km/h [≈ 112 mph]. At these high speeds, the birds didn’t manage to get out of the way in time. But nevertheless none was injured – because in this experiment the vehicles were virtual rather than real. The birds were watching a video of an approaching truck instead of the truck itself. See: Speed kills : ineffective avian escape responses to oncoming vehicles. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282(1801): 20142188. 2014

Also don’t miss ‘European birds adjust their flight initiation distance to road speed limits’ Biology Letters, October 23, 2013

BONUS (from NASA) ‘Bye Bye, Birdies’  especially vultures.

The further adventures of…. Dr. Chance

November 22nd, 2015

Dr. Chance and his research team discovered the details...” That thrilling, almost poetic passage is from a press release issued by Case Western Reserve University.